London - Simon Stephens - Paines Plough

Under the title of London, Simon Stephens’s short solo pieces T5 and Seawall are placed side-by-side in a Paines Plough, Live Theatre and Salisbury Playhouse production currently on a national tour. Whereas T5 takes us inside the mind of a woman who imagines travelling to Heathrow Terminal 5 rather than collecting her child from school, Seawall shocks with its description of a family vacation ending in a terrible accident. The pieces are delivered as successive monologues. T5 is shown in full theatrical glory, with a pristine set by Hannah Clark and inventive lighting by Malcolm Rippeth invoking an airport hotel room. This differs starkly from Seawall, where stage managers dismantle the set, leaving a black void where Alex (Cary Crankson) delivers Seawall directly to the audience.

We experience T5 through headphones; Stephens’s play becoming an internal monologue for actor Abby Ford as she moves about a hotel room, preparing to leave, stopping, dreaming and then returning to lying on the bed. The use of headphones brings about an intimacy between audience, actor and the text, with every conflicting thought whispered into our ears. However, it also leaves the piece lacking a certain climactic build in dialogue, for any raised voice becomes deafening to the audience. Perrin’s decision to internalise the piece through headphones is bold, yet T5 lacks the gutsy quality so often present in Stephens’s work, leaving the use of headphones feeling almost gimmicky.

In contrast to T5‘s highly polished design and delivery, Seawall is stripped back to basics: storytelling between actor and audience. In the performance I saw, I found it difficult to fully appreciate the transformation between the two pieces and the intensity Crankson built to deliver the punch of Seawall. This was largely due to a forced interval between the two pieces, with Crankson stopped before he began his monologue due to a member of the audience falling ill. The flow of the pieces was cut, and Crankson struggled to regain focus from an audience who had just spent a noisy 20 minutes in their seats or in the bar. While both the Brighton Dome and Paines Plough team handled the situation swiftly and professionally, it did jar the evening’s performance, ultimately making it difficult for the audience to sink back into the work and to give Crankson the attention he deserved.

Perrin’s direction of Seawall allows Crankson to work with the audience, taking them into Stephens’s writing and delivering a blow that is meant to knock the wind out of you. Crankson, with his laddish charm and thick voice, is well suited to the character of Alex, a young father who travels with his wife and child to visit his father-in-law abroad. Swimming at sea, Alex learns of the dramatic drop that happens at the sea wall, where the seabed plummets suddenly, a metaphor for the lurching drop of the stomach as Stephens coaxes out the monologue that ends in tragedy. Like any solo performance, the first few minutes are key in enticing the audience into the character’s world. Crankson achieved this, but didn’t quite manage to undo the damage done by the forced interval. Stephens’s text can only go so far, and Seawall ultimately missed the heartbreak it could have achieved.

Whilst I wasn’t won over by Perrin’s choice of direction for Stephens’s plays, the coupling of the plays does work, the contrasting approaches pulling the work in directions I wouldn’t have associated with the writing. If all our directors ever did was recreate plays as written on the page, we might as well assign the playwrights to direct their work, so Perrin should be celebrated for taking a bold risk with Stephens’s phenomenal writing. If anything, London is an experiment in theatrical form and delivery. Paines Plough might have missed the mark slightly, but at least it’s willing to do that in the first place. Directors, take note.

London is on a national tour until 24 November, including Live Theatre, Newcastle; Tron Theatre, Glasgow; and Manchester Royal Exchange. For more information and to book tickets, see the Paines Plough website.